The Mobile Marketing Monster

Tony Phillip will tell you the exact moment he knew that mobile marketing and advertising – predominantly via cell phones – had crossed over into the mainstream.

It was when American Idol, the extremely popular TV singing contest, allowed viewers to vote for their favorite singer via text message – and more than 50 million did in 2005 versus 21 million in 2004, according to the CTIA – The Wireless Association. Also in 2004, 46 percent of text messaging votes for a new pop star sent in was from wireless subscribers using text messaging for the first time, CTIA figures state.

Less than a year before, UpSNAP had a deal with ABC to allow text-message voting during the Academy Awards. It was basically a disaster, according to UpSNAP CEO Phillip, who notes, “If viewers didn’t have text messaging, they weren’t going to use it.”

What a difference a year makes. There is little doubt that mobile marketing – that including text-message ads displayed with a mobile search or via opt-in, coupons sent via cell phone, video and display ads interwoven with downloads or streaming from cell phones or other handheld device connected to the Internet – has arrived.

More major brands, agencies and start-up companies are putting their energy and dollars into exclusive campaigns and technologies aimed at mobile marketing, and for some it is already big, big business.

As people in the U.S. become more reliant on their cell phones, mobile services such as mobile search and Web surfing will become commonplace. Consider the following facts according to The Pew Internet & American Life Project:

  • 52 percent of adults have their cell phones turned on 24/7.
  • 30 percent of adults say they want to Web-surf from their cell phones.
  • 47 percent say that mobile maps and driving directions are a must on the next phones they plan to purchase.

MOBILE IS GLOBAL

Mobile marketing adoption is shooting through the roof. Worldwide mobile ad spending is expected to top $870 million by the end of this year, according to Informa Telecoms & Media. Meanwhile, The Shosteck Group predicts mobile marketing will be worth $10 billion in the U.S. by 2010.

Furthermore, 43 percent of U.S. marketers are using or about to use mobile marketing in the next 12 months, according to Forrester Research. And nearly 90 percent of major brands plan to market to mobile phones by 2008, according to a survey by Airwide Solutions.

“It’s happening faster than anyone expected,” Laura Marriott, executive director of the Mobile Marketing Association (MMA), says. “2006 is certainly a year that more and more brands are getting involved but so much more can happen. Response rates from mobile are very high. There’s great engagement from the consumer.”

That sounds like a giant wellspring ready to gush, but the U.S. is not even in the lead here. Most of Europe is slightly ahead in the adoption of text messaging because of the availability of cheaper cell phones. In March, mobile phone users in Britain sent more text messages than they ever had before – 3.19 billion or about 103 million per day. That’s a region with only about 60 million people in it.

In Japan, NTT DoCoMo recently pulled in $2.5 billion in the first quarter of 2006 in non-voice revenue. About 35 billion text messages are sent each month in China, where about 426 million people have cell phones – that’s like giving one and a half phones to every person in the U.S.

Pay per text has also taken hold in the U.K., where users can request a text message of a phone number when calling directory assistance or have directory assistance send the number automatically. Phone numbers and special-offer text ads are sent when directory assistance is asked for a keyword such as “travel.”

“[Mobile marketing] can be a big cash cow for any company,” Holger Kamin, country manager USA for Germany-based Zanox, a multichannel commerce provider, says.

The ease with which so much of the world outside the U.S. has embraced handsets to communicate in ways other than phone calls means the choice for advertisers is simply how to reach out to them. Of cell phone functions available, the surprising choice for marketers so far has been the simple text message.

“We always go back to what the consumer knows,” says Marriott of the MMA, “and what is already available in handsets.” She says text messaging has made a pretty natural rise to the top, but also wants to make sure “we don’t get ahead of ourselves in technology.”

While Americans may own 200 million cell phones, marketers wonder if all these people are using even the simple functions on their phones. While 75 percent of U.S. teens (age 15 to 17) own a cell phone, according to eMarketer, only 36 percent ever send or receive a text message. These conflicting statistics are what may be holding back the really big advertisers from designing campaigns for mobile en masse.

It was only two years ago the CTIA – The Wireless Association introduced cell phone short codes, which are 5-digit numbers that text-messagers use to send their message instead of a standard 10- digit phone number. The short codes were designed to help marketers reach out to brand customers via mobile phones. Anheuser-Busch, Dove soap and Daimler-Chrysler are just a few of the major brands that ran successful short code campaigns to get customer feedback via cell phones.

CAMPAIGNS TO GO

That will not stop the innumerable mobile ad companies from vying for your attention.

MobileLime CEO Bob Wesley, for example, thinks of it as developing a one-to-one relationship. “This is all viral now,” he says. So far MobileLime has used radio ads to get opt-ins and serve coupons to cell phones. It is not only paving the way for m-commerce (paying for an item through your cell phone), but gathers rich data for the advertisers, such as if recipients opened the coupon, when they did, what they used it for and for how much, Wesley says.

Currently, some companies such as Bango enable payment via mobile phones through a deal with PayPal, but the selling merchant must sign up for Bango’s service to allow the capability. Other companies such as JumpTap aim at launching a mobile search index to challenge Google. Carriers join the search index and online auction platform and serve it to their customers.

Of course, in the online world, coupons are big business and they are not being left behind in the mobile arena. Mobile coupons are making great inroads to the electronic platform because of the “sheer inefficiency of paper coupons,” says Peter Sealey, CEO of consulting firm The Sausalito Group. He says with redemption rates for paper coupons at only 3 percent, advertisers realize they save more cash going electronic. The marketer pays only when someone prints a coupon, eliminating distribution costs. “Marketers after the 2000 dot-com crash said, ‘Thank God that’s over,'” Sealy says. “We can go back to TV and radio.” Now, mainstream marketers are embracing the full bloom of mobile marketing again, he adds.

Sealey predicts that within five years, the paper coupon will be as good as dead. Search giant Google recently said it would start to offer local coupons in conjunction with using Google Maps. Online coupons in general have already taken hold with as much as 50 percent of online coupons being redeemed, according to some estimates. Companies such as CoolSaving, Coupons, Inc. and Zixxo do well marketing coupons over the Internet. Sealey says as more marketers accept electronic devices as a viable vehicle, the better adoption rates will get.

Some mainstream advertisers and companies are already rolling out robust campaigns to cell phones. Strawberry music stores on the East Coast are text-messaging promotions and deals to mobile handset users who sign up to receive alerts and geographic-based special deals. While Strawberry has relatively few stores in its network, Starbucks with thousands of locations has run a scavenger-hunt-style loyalty promotion where cell phone users signed up to get questions via text messages, the solving of which could send five chosen players on a vacation to Costa Rica.

Recently named No. 2 carmaker Toyota spent $10 million on a mobile campaign targeting Hispanic cell phone owners to watch funny hidden camera clips on their phones featuring the 2007 Camry. And Google is undertaking significant testing for its own mobile ads on its mobile search results and to launch a version of AdWords for mobile. Google is testing the search ad in the U.S., the U.K. and Germany.

Popular eateries McDonald’s and Subway are also getting their feet wet by offering some promotions via mobile phones. Even Net vet AOL has had its Mobile Search Services up since December 2005 with search, a shopping comparison module and a Yellow Pages feature.

MOBILE ON TARGET

Firms with mobile technology know-how are not the only ones seeking to cash in on mobile marketing. AirG, for example, sets up social networks on its platform and has found great success in sending mobile promotions to its base of users. They worked five years to get 5 million users and in the last eight months that has bounded up to 10 million. AirG’s display ads and ad-sponsored games for handsets capture detailed demographics and consistently get a more than 28 percent response rate. Receiving the ads can be turned off and on at will and are all opt-in.

Along the way, AirG discovered they had a significant Hispanic demographic, so they customize certain promotions to target only those groups. Frederick Ghahramani, AirG co-founder, says he can find the Latino males in New York City who are single and send only them an appropriate promotion or coupon electronically.

“What’s been lacking isn’t the enthusiasm [for mobile marketing],” he says, “but the ability to target the active base of customers.” They share personal information with each other and find like-minded people. AirG brings relevant targeting to the table, he says, noting, “The industry has had the ambition but now is waking up.”

There is nearly universal agreement that the key element for the continued success of mobile marketing is targeting. Third Screen, the largest U.S. mobile ad network, got the jump on everyone when it started four years ago and has only recently said that targeting mobile ads has finally reached a kind of maturity. The company has stated that the next achievements in mobile marketing will be privacy standards for all carriers, predicting more detailed demographics from broad information and more and better mobile ads based on real-time location of the handset user.

With the popularity of buying and downloading ringtones and entering online auctions via cell, companies like Ad Mob want to make sure you can reach users based on their region, platform, device capabilities and even manufacturer. If you want ads to reach only Nokia users on MIDP 2.0 devices in Europe, AdMob, who also has polyphonic ringtone support, states they can do that. Of the many companies that now have a mobile marketing component, better targeting is their crown jewel, the company claims.

Some companies have come up with original ways to engage people via cell phones. Vibes Media has its Text-2- Screen that invites concert-goers to text to the Jumbotron screens at stadium-sized pop concerts. The text they send to the screen is displayed on the branded screens with messages such as “Get ready 2 rock!” and “Happy birthday, Sarah J.” Irvine, Calif., company go2 recently launched go2 SpeedPoll, which conducts surveys sent via cell phone that ask about attitudes toward certain brands – with results viewable in real time.

MOBILE PERFORMANCE

Affiliate marketing powerhouse LinkShare won’t be left behind. President of LinkShare Steve Denton says its parent company Rakuten of Japan is having considerable success with mobile commerce. He says that at LinkShare Japan, a significant percentage of affiliate purchases are coming from mobile commerce.

“Our customers live and work and play in a world without boundaries,” Denton says, “and we must find ways to exchange with our customers, and then we need a platform for that; then mobilize.”

Japanese m-commerce is exemplified by someone shopping in a mall who finds a cool jacket, takes a picture of the UPC code on the tag, sends that to a browser and makes the purchase via cell. In addition, that customer can mobile email the code and a picture of the jacket to as many friends as he or she thinks would also like to buy it.

Denton says he has no doubt that “affiliates could plug this into their business models very quickly. But the infrastructure is not there yet.” He adds that publishers have great house lists but are not using text or cell phone numbers from their customers. “Cell phone numbers will be more valuable than email addresses in five years,” he says, adding that LinkShare in the U.S. will have some key additions to mobile in the near future.

But even as the adoption numbers keep steadily rising, there are still some gray clouds out there. For example, for a country with so much Internet usage, only 16 percent of U.S. mobile phone subscribers use their Web-enabled phones for the Internet. Some ad networks only work with certain brands of cell phones and even companies that say their platforms work across all brands and telecom networks can’t guarantee that the service will work for consumers consistently.

While marketers are very eager to reap the financial benefits mobile promises, some critics have said that not enough is being done to erect coherent marketing strategies. In the rush to go mobile, some companies are grabbing whatever firms are offering and not building their own goals, figuring out how to follow the metrics, putting up privacy standards or discovering a solid plan to get people to opt in. “Some companies are so decentralized,” says Zanox’s Kamin, “that they don’t even know they have [offices] in Europe.”

Other critics say a patchwork of partnerships keeps true standards from emerging. In the realm of mobile search, a giant like Google can go out on its own with few partnerships because most go to Google anyway, but other search companies (Yahoo, MSN and others) must become allies with a carrier to get the best traffic. These kinds of deals can shut out some cell phone owners from getting the right information when they want it. There are also bandwidth inconsistencies as there are with general cell phone reception depending on location and interference. SEO firm Oneupweb has noted that the myriad of technical issues with mobile commerce and advertising will smooth out for the next generation of mobile surfers and searchers because the interfaces will gradually become less technical. It will be like operating your TiVo or your iPod.

“Unlike a year ago – the early days,” says Phillip of UpSNAP, “search [via mobile] didn’t make a lot of sense, but now they will do what is relevant to their mobile lifestyle – comparison shopping, for example, before you get into your car.”

Marketers are also just beginning to realize that the mobile lifestyle cuts across socioeconomic barriers. Most people in the U.S. – even some of the most poor – have a cell phone. With 200 million handsets out there and growing, the young and old and rich and poor and racially diverse pretty much covers everyone who can participate in mobile marketing.